Sonora Reyes is following up the success of their debut YA novel, The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School, a National Book Award finalist, with The Luis Ortega Survival Club. After a party with her crush Luis Ortega ends in a sexual encounter that she “hated every second of,” nonverbal teen Ariana Ruiz discovers she’s not the only classmate who has had nonconsensual encounters with Luis. When the teens come together seeking to expose Luis for his predatory behavior, Ariana plots with the group to get revenge. We spoke with Reyes about “naming and shaming” abusers, new ways of thinking about revenge, and prioritizing consent in a story about a neurodivergent teen.

Your previous novel The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School tackles homophobia and The Luis Ortega Survival Club deals with sexual assault. As a writer addressing tough subjects, how do you take care of yourself?

For the first book, I think I took care of myself by writing the book because I was fully ready to process all this stuff I hadn’t thought about for 10 years. I went to Catholic school 10 years before, and I was just like, “Oh, I am so ready to therapize myself, and write this book.” With the second book, I needed to write it to find the catharsis and I did need to take my time a little bit more—it was a little bit darker because the subject matter deals with sexual assault. I also took a lot longer to revise that book. I had to learn how to take breaks and do self-care in between. I went on hiatus from that book a few times before I came back to it, really knowing what to do with it.

In the introduction to the book, you discuss your choice to name the antagonist in the title, and the importance of naming abusers. Can you share more about how you decided on the title?

I did have a little bit of pushback with it, and I totally understand why because it is a big decision to name someone so horrible in the title. I didn’t want it to feel like I was glorifying that person or giving him the honor of being named. I wanted it to feel like we’re naming and shaming this person, this fictionalized character who does not exist, but does exist [in reality] for so many people. Part of the fantasy is naming the abuser and knowing that they won't be able to get away with it.

And within their little club, it’s also important to them. They don’t know how they’re going to get revenge. They just know they want to find catharsis. They want to have a little support group and potentially get back at this guy, but they don't know how. So naming him, even in the title of their club, is something that is just for them.

How does Ariana’s identity as a neurodivergent young woman factor into how she navigates the aftermath of her assault?

When I was writing this book, I really wanted to emphasize consent for Ari, and how that can look different for someone who has selective mutism versus someone who doesn’t, and how it looks for someone who's touch averse, like Ari is. For example, we see an instance where Angel is tickling Jasmine and Jasmine’s like, “Oh, haha, stop.” But he’ll stop because she told him to stop. Ari is so shocked by this because she thinks that people don’t just stop when you tell them to. I feel like with Shawni specifically, but with everyone really, they figure out how to communicate with Ari and find ways so that they know that she’s consenting to whatever is happening. Shawni will give her a piece of paper to write on or give her a smartwatch so that she can pre-record messages when she can’t talk, and stuff like that. Or she’ll say, “Hey, is it okay if I hold your hand? Is it okay if I touch you right now?” Little things like that really show that they’re communicating with Ari in the way that she’s comfortable with. They’re making sure that they are respecting her boundaries and each other’s boundaries, in all the ways that they communicate. I did really want to emphasize how it's a little bit different with Ari because she's not talking. They have to check in with her, and it’s just seen as a thing that they do because they respect her, and they want to make sure that she’s happy.

When the survival club first turns to social media to expose Luis, their attempt isn’t as successful as they’d hoped. What does that moment say about our moral barometer for what is and isn’t acceptable?

I think that a lot of people get threatened by someone trying to expose someone else for things that they might have some dirty laundry about. A lot of people cheat on their partners, right? A lot of people like to talk about the people they have sex with to their friends. Even though Luis Ortega was doing it in a way that was way worse than what they were doing, I think they still ultimately wanted to protect him because they didn’t want to come under fire next. This is so messed up, and this is something I struggled with, because he was doing much worse than what they were saying at the beginning. But it shouldn’t have to be that that someone is so, so, so terrible, undeniably so, for people to believe victims. It’s really freaking hard to get people on the side of the victim, almost always, but this book is all about the fantasy [of revenge], so it’s definitely something that is possible, and they make it happen. It’s something that I’ve always really wanted to see, is more revenge.

Seeking revenge is often characterized as something negative. How do you perceive the concept of revenge, and the role it plays in this book?

I personally am all for revenge. I know that it is really seen as something negative a lot of the time. It’s not seen as the “healthy” way to cope. But if it helps, we can frame it [in this book] not so much as revenge, but as justice because that’s really what the characters are after. I think revenge and justice do get conflated, when really, it’s a systemic issue that so many people—especially, when it comes to sexual assault—are never getting justice. So of course, they’re going to want revenge. If they can’t get justice, what else can they get?

Of course, they're going to want revenge. If they can't get justice, what else can they get?

Ariana and Shawni, Luis's ex-girlfriend, both struggle with leftover romantic feelings for Luis after their revelations about him. Why was it important to show different emotional responses that characters have to Luis throughout the book?

There's no one size fits all when it comes to this kind of thing. Everyone is going to have different emotional baggage and different reasons why they feel the way they do. I wanted to show how complicated that can be with abusers, especially for Ari and Shani, because they both had feelings for Luis at some point. I think that’s something I don’t see many people talking about, the complicated feelings that come from assault and being abused—that you can still have feelings for the person afterwards. It’s another source of self-hatred, and another thing that makes it so hard to heal. Ultimately, they’ve got to come to terms with why they feel this way and heal fully from him in order to get past that, but they find each other.

How does the survival club balance being both a safe space and a physical reminder of Luis’s presence in the lives of the club members?

At first, they all come together wanting to get revenge and being like, “We hate this guy an, we want to get back at him.” But I think that they don’t actually [interrogate] “how much do we want his presence in this club to be a thing?” until they actually start becoming friends. They have to do some exploring because it’s hard to associate your whole healing [process] with one guy who did horrible things. They realize that they actually like each other outside of this trauma that happened, outside of this guy. They don’t want him to define them; they don’t want him to be everything they talk about. So they have to figure out how to strike that balance. And they’re teenagers, they’re not going to be perfect. It’s not a linear healing process, but they do find the balance in that.

What can readers expect from you next?

There will be multiple announcements, hopefully soon. I am working in the adult space now, and I’m also working on another YA project that may be related to one of my previous books.

The Luis Ortega Survival Club by Sonora Reyes. HarperCollins/ Balzer + Bray, $19.99 May 23 ISBN 978-0-06-306030-2